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Sunday, 22 June 2014

If G-d is good, why is there evil in the world?


Taanis 10

If G-d is good, why does He allow evil and suffering?

In his bestselling book, Harold Kushner suggests that perhaps G-d is not in control of events in this world. 

Traditional Judaism teaches that G-d is indeed in control and that G-d is good, nay perfect.  How could He be good on the one hand, and allow evil on the other hand?

The Rabbis taught: Egypt is four hundred parsas (approx. a thousand miles) by four hundred parsas, which is one sixtieth of the size of Ethiopia.  Ethiopia is one sixtieth of the world, which is one sixtieth of the size of the Garden of Eden.  The Garden is one sixtieth of the size of Eden itself and Eden is one sixtieth of the size of Hell.   The result is that the entire world is like a pot lid compared to Hell.  Some say Hell has no limit.  Others say Eden has no limit.

In ancient times, Egypt was the most beautiful country in the world.  Quenched by the Nile, Egypt was famous far and wide for its rich agricultural resources and abundant prosperity.  Situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Egypt was an economic hub and important trade route.

In contrast, Ethiopia has forever been mired in famine and strife.   The Midrash teaches that Moses passed through and resolved a civil war, subsequently being appointed emperor for forty years.   No sooner had he left, however, that the country once again sunk into sectarian violence.  Until our day, we have seen the devastating effects of war and famine upon the inhabitants of Ethiopia.

The Rabbis here are teaching us that for all the happiness and prosperity in the world, there is abundantly more suffering.   We are taught that Egypt is four hundred by four hundred parsas.  The significance of the number four hundred is that it is the gematria (numerical value) of the ‘evil eye.’  Material prosperity, explains the Talmud, is fleeting, since it is always at the mercy of the forces of nature.



In fact, Egypt is merely one sixtieth of the size of Ethiopia.  Sixty is the number in Jewish law of negation.  If, for example, a drop of milk falls into a pot of meat soup, but it is less than one sixtieth, it becomes nullified.  The Rabbis’ message is that prosperity in this world is nullified in the totality of suffering in the world.  Why?

Our purpose in this world is to be challenged.  If everything were good, what would our purpose be?  It is only by means of difficulty and challenges that we are able to grow, thereby fulfilling our souls’ missions in this world. 

When we succeed at overcoming the challenges of this world or not losing faith in the Almighty in the face of adversity, we are rewarded in the World to Come.  When we imagine Paradise, the most creative picture we can conjure up is one of the Garden of Eden.   The Talmud here points out that if Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, one can only imagine how beautiful Eden itself must be!

In Judaism, it’s not as simple as two options: heaven or hell.  You can achieve a certain level of heaven, while others have achieved a better level.  The Garden is one level of reward, but it doesn’t compare to the house of Eden! 

Sadly, however, too many people fail the tests of life and end up regretting their time on earth.  Thus, hell is massive.  Hell, in Judaism, is the eternal regret that one endures, thinking about missed opportunities during your lifetime.   Here we can forgive ourselves – in the World of Truth, however, there’s no lying to ourselves anymore.  The pain of those memories of opportunities lost is excruciating.

While Judaism doesn’t have the notion of ‘eternal damnation’ per se, “Hell has no limit.”  We believe that sins and merits do not cancel one another out.  What that means is that you could be sitting in Heaven, enjoying the fruits of the Garden of Eden, and at the same time living with the regret of missed opportunities in this world.  In other words, the pleasure and pain of eternity are concurrent.

The good news is that “Eden [also] has no limit.”  Despite all the apparent suffering in this world, if we would stop for a moment and think about all the blessing the Almighty has bestowed upon us, we would be eternally grateful.  His bounty far outweighs the challenges! 

And so too in the World to Come, G-d’s mercy and loving-kindness have no limit.  Hell is not punishment for punishment’s sake.  G-d wants to cleanse us of our iniquities in this world so that He can offer us eternal reward.  And so, when you think about it, Hell is really Eden in disguise – it’s G-d’s blessing to help us! 


There is an old Chasidic idea that says ‘Some people in life receive the test of poverty, others receive the test of wealth.  Given the choice, I’d take the latter test!’  May we all be blessed in this life and in the next with abundant prosperity and may we all meet the challenges that prosperity brings with it!